Video Games That Are Nice Instead of Naughty

'LocoRoco' video game characters

hide captionIn the video game 'LocoRoco,' the blobby characters do not move. You move their landscape. They will drive you loco. But we cannot explain what 'roco' means.

Parents may feel they have two choices when they go to buy games for their children: dark, blood-splattered adventures starring burly men or nauseatingly fluffy games with brand-name stars like Barbie. Fortunately, plenty of games fall in between the extremes: puzzlers, nonviolent action titles and quality sports games that aren't too gritty for kids 7 and up and won't make older gamers (of any age) feel like the kid in the pink bunny suit. So whether you're a non-gaming parent trying to cut through the marketing machine, or a gamer looking for some great games that may have flown under the radar, check out this guide, which is organized by platform-type (next-gen, portables and last-gen).

All of the games in this guide are rated E for Everyone by the ESRB, except when noted. A few have an E10+ rating: appropriate for "Everyone 10 and older." There's more information on the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

Next Gen Consoles: Wabbits, Worms and Ping Pong

'Viva Pinata' video game

hide captionSad news: There is neither real nor virtual candy in the game 'Viva Pinata'

Microsoft's Xbox 360 is hitting its stride with the non-kid-friendly Gears of War, which might overshadow some good E-rated games. More recently, Sony's Playstation 3 (PS3) was launched with an underwhelming set of titles. Nintendo — a company that generally caters to a family-friendly crowd — fares only slightly better with games for the Wii. By next holiday season, catalogues will surely fill out. In the meantime, here are a few titles to pass the time.

Viva Pinata (X360, $50)

At first glance, the bright colors and funny creatures seem to push the cuteness envelope a little too hard. Plus, it is a tie-in game for a children's TV show. But if your gamer dismisses this title because she's just "too cool," she'll be denying herself one of the best X360 games yet. The game fits in the "sandbox" category – there's no goal, no definitive ending. You just play around, manipulating a virtual garden to attract various "Pinatas" — worms, birds, sheep and other creatures. That sounds simple, but it turns out that the animals have different — and sometimes contradictory needs. Do you want to keep your worms happy or breed them to be bird food?

Bottom Line: Very pretty, very entertaining. Gamers who can swallow their pride will be treated to one of the best gaming experiences this console has to offer while the wee ones will enjoy the worms.

***

Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis (X360, $38)

This excellent simulation is brought to you by Rockstar, the folks behind the much-maligned (but technically fabulous) "Grand Theft Auto" series. The only similarities are a high level of quality and vigorous attention to detail. The basic controls are simple: The four face buttons correspond to a top, bottom, left or right spin shot; holding down any button increases the force of the shot, which is gauged by a handy power meter. That's all you need to know to get started, but by experimenting with button combinations and by learning to watch your opponent, you can greatly improve your game. While this is definitely a no-frills interpretation of the often overlooked Olympic sport, it's a blast to play, either as a single player, in a one-on-one match with a friend or online with Xbox Live.

Bottom Line: Generally appealing game, and the best table tennis adaptation since PONG, all at a budget price (for the X360 anyway).

***

F-Zero (Wii Virtual Console, $8 or 800 Wii Points)

Those racing hovercrafts from the 1991 game are back, along with some of the catchiest video game music ever written. The inventive race tracks, crazy speed and challenging opponents will surely hook the uninitiated while satisfying those who remember the original version. This game must be purchased with the Wii's online service through The Shop Channel for 800 "gamer points" (which turns out to be about eight bucks). For details, check the Web site.

Bottom Line: Show those whippersnappers how great gaming used to be done back when Bush the elder was at the helm.

***

Rayman Raving Rabbits (Wii, Xbox, PS2, X360, $40- $50)

You are Rayman (which means you have a lot of floating appendages). And you have been captured by an army of raving mad, goofy and yet strangely endearing rabbits. Though all of the previous Rayman games have been straightforward action platformers, this fourth installment changes things up by offering a collection of mini-games: challenges you must win to escape from the bunnies. You have weapons (along the lines of rubber plungers). You engage in athletic competitions. The 70 games would become a bit tedious except for those cwazy wabbits. One caveat: Some games require a long wait between turns.

Bottom Line: Not perfect but, for now, the best party-game on the Wii.

Portable Fun: Mr. ESC, LocoRoco, Dancing Agents

'Exit' is a video game

hide captionMr. Esc, come on over! Rescue those victims of disaster.

Because portable game systems lack the serious hardware of their stationary brethren, there are many more limitations when it comes to game design. But this burden turns out to be a blessing in disguise, since game-makers are required to kick their creative genius into overdrive. The result: some of the most inventive games in the industry, designed for the Play Station Portable (PSP) and Nintendo DS (DS).

Exit (PSP, $20)

A professional "escapologist," Mr. ESC risks his life to rescue unfortunate souls from sticky situations. There are no enemies, just treacherous terrain to navigate as you find the survivors from a disaster (earthquakes, fires, collapsing buildings and the like). Then you try to find the path to safety — the titular exit. The obstacles get trickier as you progress through the 10 stages (with 10 levels in each stage). If that's not enough, you can download additional levels. The survivors are slower and can't take as much abuse as your protagonist, which can be frustrating, and the sound is obnoxiously repetitive and muffled. Nonetheless, I'd suggest that you run, not walk, toward the nearest copy of Exit.

Bottom Line: Excellent brain teaser for all ages at half the price of most PSP games.

***

LocoRoco (PSP, $40)

Instead of guiding your character through a 2-D stage (a la the original Mario Brothers), you move the world. Because the smiling blobby rocos lack any motor skills of their own, the happy creatures will roll whichever way the land pushes them. The game uses a control scheme that is simple and elegant: the left trigger button tilts the world to the left, the right trigger tilts right, and pressing both buttons simultaneously "shakes" that world, causing the rocco to jump. If this sounds too simple to be interesting, fear not. Special roco abilities (you can, for example, fracture your roco into many mini-rocos to squeeze through tight spaces) and ingenious design ensure that all 40 stages the roco moves through stay fresh and challenging. Indeed, they roll by regrettably quickly. A wealth of hidden content encourages multiple play-throughs, adding fun and value to this utterly cheerful game.

Bottom Line: Innovative design and an excellent and entreating game in its own right.

***

Elite Beat Agents (DS, $35)

They're a team of superheroes who solve problems by carrying out daunting dance routines to a variety of pop tunes. And you tap a stylus in time to the music to get them going. Only some very adroit choreography can save the two desert island dames (who bear an uncanny resemblance to Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie). The "stages" are essentially individual —and often very bizarre — stories in which the agents have been inserted. Note that Agents is the only entry in this guide without an 'E' rating — it's rated 'RP' for Rating Pending, essentially because the ESRB doesn't know how to deal with the lyrics from the pop music.

Bottom Line: Hilarious, loads of fun, gets quite difficult toward the end. One of the best games in the genre and one of the best on the Nintendo DS.

***

New Super Mario Bros (DS, $35)

There have been some 40 iterations of the Mario Brothers platformer worldwide, and Mario himself has appeared in more than 160 games since he became Nintendo's mascot more than 25 years ago. But busting bricks, collecting coins and stomping on goombas never seems to get old. Amazingly, New Super Mario Bros. does actually offer something new in the form of new tricks — like the super mushroom that makes Mario large enough to fill the screen. So the game doesn't seem moldy or stale.

Bottom Line: May be too easy for some but manages to entertain both newcomers and the nostalgia crowd.

Old Standbys: Ewoks, Monkeys and More

'World Soccer' video game

hide captionEven a soccer newbie will get a kick out of this video game.

Well, old in technology-years. They don't have slick, high-def graphics. They don't have wireless, motion-sensitive controllers. They are not cutting edge. But these venerable consoles do have well-respected catalogues with serious depth and breadth. Here are some of 2006's E-rated standouts for the Playstation 2 (PS2), Xbox and Game Cube (GC). Here are some of 2006's E-rated standouts.

World Soccer Winning Eleven (PS2 Xbox, $35)

The Winning Eleven franchise has been hailed as the best video game soccer series around, and the ninth iteration continues that tradition. Controlling your player is elegantly simple and intuitive, so even soccer-game neophytes (like me) can pick it up in no time. The various training modes, however, reveal a veritable library of moves that add to the game's already considerable depth. While playing single games is great fun, the career mode — you get to be a manager/coach —adds a whole other dimension of play that's quite engaging. If you tire of that, you can always play with your friends, or hop on Microsoft's or Sony's online service to find competition. My only complaint is the lack of licensing, which is not a big deal but does hurt the otherwise unflinching realism. You can't play as your favorite real-life team nor can you compete in the World Cup.

Bottom Line: A must have for any soccer or sports fan, and a great edition to any gamer's library.

***

Lego Star Wars 2 (Most systems, $30-$50)

No, it's not just Star Wars enacted by Lego blocks. Rather, it is this year's greatest thrill for fans of the movie and of the build-it-yourself Lego ethos. You control as many as seven iconic characters (which calls for a good bit of strategy). You do battle in familiar places (like the forest moon of Endor, complete with fuzzy Ewoks). You even have to build things with Lego blocks (on screen, of course). It's a great action game, rated E 10+ because of the cartoon violence. But there's nothing more violent than the Star Wars movies. And, plus, we're talking about characters who are not flesh and blood — for heaven's sake, they're made of Legos!

Bottom Line: Can become repetitive but is still one of the better games using the revered Star Wars and LEGO licenses. Wonderfully funny, sharp-looking.

***

Harvest Moon: Magical Melody (GC, $40)

Okay. It's strange. And sickeningly cute. And yet ... surprisingly entertaining. You choose a plot of land in Flower Bud Village. And then you farm it. Natural disasters, rival farmers and a tough market make it difficult to stay in the black. You can raise animals or crops, and eventually buy more land to control. If you want to take a break from the tough life of farming, go to fairs or take a fishing trip. The game's open-endedness may seem daunting at first, but it doesn't take much time to get things under control. There's also a fairytale storyline — well-mannered gnomes ask you to collect musical notes to save the Harvest Goddess. But really, it's all about capitalism. And yes, capitalism is compelling. Just ask Adam Smith if you don't believe me.

Bottom Line: The strange premise is actually fun, although there's a bit of cute overload, too many options and no time limits.

***

Ape Escape 3 (PS2, $25)

Four hundred monkeys have created a host of mind-numbingly dumb TV shows that are turning brains all over the world into mush. Their goal is to eliminate resistance to the evil Specter. As the brother-sister duo Kei and Yumi, your job is to find and capture Specter's 400 monkeys before all is lost. Armed with a personal helicopter, monkey radar and a gaggle of gadgets, you'll travel to different TV sets—from the Arabian Nights to westerns — as you battle the simians. Banana launchers and weapons from the TV sets (including a six-shooter) earned a 10+ rating for cartoon violence. But really, how else can you catch cartoon monkeys?

Bottom Line: If you don't like monkeys or stage-prop firearms, stay away. Otherwise this is a wonderfully funny and well-made 3-D adventure game.

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